Threatened to be overshadowed both by its ostensible gimmick and by a deafening roar of hype from the indie-rock press, Sufjan (pronounced SOOF-yan) Stevens’s Illinois, his second album in a proposed state-by-state travelogue (following 2001’s homestate tribute, Greetings From Michigan) and his fifth album overall, instead swaggers fully into the light, instantly asserting itself as one of the year’s most remarkable recordings. Illinois offers no shortage of immediate pleasures—the recorder flourish that opens “The Black Hawk War,” the anthemic singalong chorus of “Chicago”—but it is ultimately the type of dense, challenging project that demands to be repeatedly, actively engaged.
While Stevens has clearly done his requisite homework for Illinois, investigating the lore of the state’s smaller towns and strengthening his fluency in the likes of Lincoln, Sandburg, and even Gacy Jr., the state proper is but a starting point both for his insightful self-analytical streak and his adventurous compositional gifts. The refrain of the fascinating call-and-response “Come On! Feel The Illinoise!,” for instance, finds Carl Sandburg asking Stevens, “Are you writing from the heart?” And, with song titles such as “To The Workers Of The Rockford River Valley Region, I Have An Idea Concerning Your Predicament” and “Decatur, or, Round Of Applause For Your Stepmother!,” it’s perhaps too easy to dismiss Stevens’s writing as defensively glib. The key distinction, then, is that Stevens doesn’t take himself too seriously, but he approaches the ideas that infuse his work with the respect they most certainly merit.
The highlight of an album full of them is “Casimir Pulaski Day,” in which Stevens mourns a girlfriend dying of bone cancer. As he sings, “Tuesday night at the Bible study/We lift our hands and pray over your body/But nothing ever happens,” he distills a profound sense of spiritual disquiet into such a simple, even naïve image that the song’s final stanza is stunning in its complete explosion of the oft-recited, “The Lord giveth, and the Lord taketh away.” As he did on last year’s Seven Swans, Stevens explores his Christian faith with an honesty and openness that strike as refreshingly atonal with the greater sociopolitical climate. Still, he isn’t above the occasional twee wordplay, rhyming “Ronald Reagan” with “Xylophagan” on “They Are Night Zombies!! They Are Neighbors!! They Have Come Back From The Dead!! Run For Your Lives!! Ahhhhhh!,” or using Decatur almost entirely for its nearly limitless potential for rhymes.
Perhaps most remarkable about Illinois is that Stevens’s exceptional lyrics are surpassed by his diverse, ambitious compositions. While his familiar brand of neo-folk is well represented (as on the appropriately eerie “John Wayne Gacy, Jr.” and “Decatur”), the bulk of the album showcases a breadth of structures and styles that, at various turns, recalls the best of Richard Buckner or Jim White. Part I of “Come On! Feel the Illinoise!” (subtitled, “The World’s Columbian Expedition”) forces a 5/4 time signature onto the frame of an epic-length pop song, only to shift to a more straightforward 4/4 meter to foreground the thematic purpose of Part II (“Carl Sandburg Visits Me In A Dream”). Which is to say that Stevens fully grasps the importance of structure as a means to enhance theme—in recent memory, Carina Round’s The Disconnection is perhaps the best analog—in a way that elevates his work above that of both his mainstream (Howie Day, Gavin DeGraw, Jason Mraz) and independent (Iron & Wine, Devendra Banhart) contemporaries.
That he plays most of the instruments—including acoustic guitar, piano, alto sax, electric bass, drums, banjo, Wurlitzer, flute, accordion, glockenspiel, and at least 20 more—and still writes songs that often surprise for their minimalism is just stupid good. Sufjan Stevens gets everything right. And, ultimately, that’s how Illinois surpasses expectations. From its framing gimmick and its anti-folk folk songwriting to its he-has-to-be-kidding song titles and its show-offy instrumentation, Illinois should reduce to a simple stunt performance. That it’s pop-art of the highest caliber, instead, cements Stevens as one of the most vital voices in music today. It’s all but inconceivable that the next 48 albums will match Illinois’ quality, but Stevens is one of a select few artists who could justify such long-term anticipation.
Label: Asthmatic Kitty Release Date: June 30, 2005 Buy: Amazon
Review: Guster’s Look Alive Is the Sound of a Band Rejuvenated
Guster’s eighth album buzzes with inventiveness, charm, and youthful dynamism.3.5
Guster has long been associated with “college rock,” and not without reason. Even though every member of the Boston-based band is now over 40, they still make bright, hyper-polished alt-pop tailor-made for campus radio. The band’s eighth album, Look Alive, adds synths and contemporary production flourishes to their sonic repertoire, but all the hallmarks of their sound remain: winsome melodies, soaring hooks, and tight, immaculate songcraft that combines the best of Britpop, 1960s folk, and post-grunge.
Like most Guster albums, Look Alive has a few duds, a few modest successes, and at least one showstopper—a song that makes you wonder why the band was never more successful. On 2006’s Ganging Up on the Sun, that song was “Satellite,” a shimmering power-pop masterpiece that split the difference between the Shins and Neutral Milk Hotel. Here, it’s “Hard Times,” which also happens to be the least Guster-like track on the album. Drenched in Auto-Tune, buzzing synth frequencies, and stadium-ready percussion, the song doesn’t sound anything like “Satellite,” let alone like the band’s output before 2000. Yet, true to form, it’s a remarkable piece of pop. “Sinister systems keep us satisfied/These are hard times,” Ryan Miller wails. It’s a simple statement, but it makes for a stunning chorus, and Miller’s effusive delivery renders it the most cathartic moment on the album.
On “Not for Nothing,” the band ventures into dream-rock territory, surrounding themselves with icy synth textures that wouldn’t sound out of place on a Wild Nothing track, while “Hello Mister Sun” is unabashed bubblegum pop that pays homage to whimsical Paul McCartney tracks like “Penny Lane” and “Good Day Sunshine.” Likewise, the sprightly “Overexcited” bounces along with a spoken-word verse and pounding, piano-centric chorus. While none of these tracks tackle complex themes, they’re playful, infectious, and eminently listenable.
Many of Guster’s best-known songs delve into same subject matter: newfound love, crippling heartache, the pain of being young, restless, and alone. Yet much of Look Alive is more elliptical. “Maybe we’re all criminals and this is just the scene of a crime,” Miller sings ambiguously on “Terrified,” forcing the listener to fill in the blanks. “Summertime” similarly defies easy explanation: Brimming with obscure religious imagery, whispered background vocals, and references to an unspecified war, it follows no logical narrative, instead allowing the track’s mood—a feeling of triumph over some great adversity—to tell the story.
For better and worse, Look Alive’s production mimics the spacious, ‘80s-inspired aesthetic that pervades much of contemporary indie-rock. “Don’t Go” transplants a prototypical Guster melody into a synth-soaked songscape, while the title track seems expressly engineered for Spotify’s Left of Center playlist. Still, the album never feels like the work of aging musicians struggling to stay relevant; it buzzes with inventiveness, charm, and youthful dynamism.
Label: Nettwerk Release Date: January 18, 2019 Buy: Amazon
Review: Toro y Moi’s Outer Peace Bends Boundaries with Mixed Results
Chaz Bear’s sixth album as Toro y Moi bends the boundaries of club music, albeit with mixed results.3.0
Having already concocted brainy dance music under the alter ego Les Sins, chillwave trailblazer, synth-pop alchemist, and psychedelic rock enthusiast Chaz Bear fully embraces the dance floor on Outer Peace, his sixth studio album as Toro y Moi. Pulling from sources as disparate as R&B, tropical house, and trap, the California-based singer bends the boundaries of club music, albeit with mixed results.
Upon first listen, it seems like Outer Peace colors a rough sketch of a dystopian future where the material is mistaken for the immaterial, technology becomes a gateway to the metaphysical, and fleeting pleasures, prompting ever greater hedonistic pursuits. It doesn’t take long to realize, though, that this dystopia isn’t some future prospect, but the present moment. With lines like “Mystic staring at his phone for oneness,” Bear masterfully defamiliarizes our world, exposing the absurdity of the digital age.
Bear charmingly pairs this oft-heavy subject matter with club-ready grooves. The existential crisis of “Who Am I” is juxtaposed with sweetly pitched-up vocals and a fizzy patchwork of synths. Bear’s playful approach to house music ensures that no amount of existential dread and doom can dampen the mood he creates throughout the album.
Bear’s tinkering, however, isn’t always transportive. The rather vanilla tropical house beat of “Baby Drive It Down” recalls Drake’s dancehall-lite, with a lifeless performance from Bear. His experimentation with trap is at first promising on “Monte Carlo,” with the support of a dreamy pillow of vocal samples, but coming in at two minutes, the track feels one note, lacking any tempo changes or even a bridge, suggesting it was perhaps better fit for an interlude.
The cover of Outer Peace depicts Bear gazing intently at a computer screen, surrounded by instruments in a clean, sterile room. He reportedly created the majority of the album during an unaccompanied two-week retreat off Northern California’s Russian River, and this isolation can be felt throughout. The album’s title represents the remarkable possibility of finding freedom from the outside world by letting loose on the dance floor and experiencing liberation in a crowd of strangers. Bear certainly takes the album there at several points, but in the limited scope and cerebral slant of these too-brief songs, he loses that outer peace.
Label: Carpark Release Date: January 18, 2019 Buy: Amazon
Review: Joe Jackson’s Fool Is a Concise and Punchy Nostalgia Trip
On Fool, Joe Jackson sounds younger and angrier than he has in years.3.0
Joe Jackson has spent the better part of four decades trying to put some distance between himself and his debut, Look Sharp!, a collection of acerbic new-wave pop songs that earned him the label of “angry young man.” But on his 21st album, Fool, he sounds younger and angrier than he has since 2003’s deliberately retro Volume 4. Maybe it’s a symptom of nostalgia: Fool, after all, is being released almost 40 years to the day after Look Sharp!, accompanied by a tour that promises to draw from Jackson’s entire career.
The album’s first two singles, “Fabulously Absolute” and “Friend Better,” both seem to deliberately rekindle the spirit of 1979: the former with its wiry post-punk guitar and synth riffs, the latter with its snotty vocal cut from the same cloth as early Jackson hits like “Is She Really Going Out with Him?” Even the refrain of the opening track “Big Black Cloud”—“No luck, no money, no sex, no fun”—is torn straight out of the London punk playbook.
Not all of the album calls back so specifically to Jackson’s debut: With its jazz-inflected piano and flute, closing track “Alchemy” is a welcome return to the moody sophisti-pop of 1982’s Night and Day. More often, however, Fool‘s refined pop-rock recalls an amalgamation of styles from Jackson’s “classic” era while also reflecting his late-career maturity. Tracks like the elegiac “Strange Land” marry his long-standing jazz and classical ambitions with his undeniable knack for pop melody in a way that doesn’t shortchange either.
Jackson, though, still hasn’t quite shaken his tendency to overextend himself. The title track is well-played, with some virtuosic runs by longtime bassist Graham Maby, but it also careens from Jackson rapping into a megaphone to a madrigal-like bridge to a synthesized surf guitar solo. The Beatles-esque “Dave” holds together better musically, but its character study of a pure-hearted but simple-minded everyman, who could have something to teach us about slowing down and enjoying life, feels cloying and condescending.
If Fool doesn’t quite measure up to Jackson’s sterling early work, it’s still more concise and punchy than 2015’s Fast Forward and less self-consciously arty than his late-‘80s and ‘90s work. By now, Jackson has surely come to terms with the fact that he’ll never be able to outrun his new wave days; keeping it as just one of the tools in his expansive arsenal is a fine compromise.
Label: earMUSIC Release Date: January 18, 2019 Buy: Amazon